Oscar shows a love of language

Foreign pics, Academy celebrate their 50-year romance

Oscar’s love affair with foreign cinema is no overnight fling. Twelve years before a foreign-language films garnered their own Oscar category in 1957, Switzerland’s “Marie-Louise” won for best original screenplay.

But while the attention of its own section was sweet, it was another 39 years before a foreign film won multiple awards. In 1984, Ingmar Bergman’s “Fanny and Alexander” took trophies for art direction, cinematography and costume design as well as best foreign-language film. (He lost the directing Oscar to James L. Brooks for “Terms of Endearment.”)

Recent years, however, have seen the affair blossom anew with the triumphs of “Life Is Beautiful” (seven noms, three wins) and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (10 noms, four wins). And Hollywood’s subtitle anxiety seems to have eased; witness the foreign-language sections of 2004 contender “The Last Samurai,” 2005 Oscar aspirant “The Passion of the Christ” and this year’s Japanese-language “Letters From Iwo Jima,” the multilingual “Babel” and the all-Mayan “Apocalypto.” More foreign tongues; fewer silly accents.

“Look at ‘City of God,’ ” says Harvey Weinstein. “It didn’t get a foreign-language nomination when we only showed it to the foreign-language committee, but when it went wide and was seen by the rest of the Academy, it got four nominations.”

But in an industry that likes to reward its own, what does it take for a foreign pic to get real Oscar love?

Sony Pictures Classics topper Michael Barker says it’s simple. “If foreign-language films are the best movies of the year, they’re going to vote for them.”

However, that presumes what Weinstein says is the most difficult element: getting voters to see the movie. “It helps if the film is released in the U.S. earlier in the awards season, like we did with ‘Life Is Beautiful,’ because it drives awareness on the film and gives the entire Academy more time to see the picture.”

Fox Searchlight chief operating officer Nancy Utley says that strategy comes with a downside. Searchlight’s nominee, “Water,” is now widely available on DVD, “but the bad thing is you have to remind everybody about it.”

And foreign-language pics’ campaigns for voter affections often come with financial hamstrings, Utley says: “You don’t have the return on a foreign-language movie that you do on a English-language movie, so you can’t campaign in the same way.” Searchlight relies on low-cost efforts such as Academy screenings and reminding journalists of the film’s controversial production history.

Still, foreign lingo cinema still struggles with its role as the attractive paramour stashed in a small pension across town.

“They act like (foreign language) is your little box,” laments Utley. ” ‘That’s why we made the category, so you would stay there.’ “

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